Boston-based architects Höweler+Yoon, along with Mabel O. Wilson, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, and Dr. Frank Dukes, are designing a circular memorial to honor the slaves who helped build The University of Virginia (UVA). The memorial was approved by the UVA’s Board of Visitors Buildings and Grounds Committee this past Friday.
It is estimated that some 5,000 enslaved people contributed to the erection of the University, which was planned by President Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago. Only a fifth of those who worked on the University’s construction have recorded names, almost all of which are singular first names. These will be inscribed on the circular memorial—formally titled the “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers”—and space will be left for further names, should research uncover more.
The design features a locally sourced granite circle, with a diameter of roughly 80 feet and rising gradually to a peak of eight feet, that references The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. The architects consulted residents of Charlottesville and worked with the University when drafting their proposal; their efforts included community meetings and a social media campaign. “It was critical that we engage the school and local community to ensure that we heard as many voices as possible, and that we understood what individuals felt the memorial needed to achieve,” said Dr. Frank Dukes, in a press release.
The memorial comprises two rings. The larger ring will display the names of enslaved people on the inside as it encases a smaller ring, which will serve as a bench for contemplation and hold a water table. A history of slavery at UVA will also be etched into this inner ring. Marcus Martin, a co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity at UVA, told the Washington Post that the water “will symbolize libation and the transatlantic voyage of the enslaved people.”
Martin added that he envisions programs and classes being held at the memorial. “I can see gospel choirs singing there. I can see people giving speeches there,” he also said. “Students, staff, and faculty will pass by it every day…. They will probably sit there and reflect upon the memorial.”
UVA, from an architectural perspective, is laced in history. Monticello and UVA are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for example, but Kirt von Daacke, a professor and assistant dean at UVA, said the university aims to address the fact that “Jefferson is both the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the man who founded a radical experiment in higher education in the United States, and a lifelong slaveholder with rather unpleasant views.”
“I don’t think the university, until the last decade, had really begun to grapple with that reality,” he continued, in conversation with the Washington Post. “I’m really excited that we are adding to that landscape.” In a separate press release, Meejin Yoon of Höweler + Yoon also stated, “the Memorial is a facet of the University’s
commemorative project that involves many people and initiatives, we envision this memorial to embody the ideals of the University which, as Jefferson defined to be, ‘to follow truth wherever it may lead.'”